The first ball that Virat Kohli faced was his last. Eden’s people went hysterical with happiness. This was as much India as anywhere, maybe even more with cricket, but this was not that much Virat Kohli.
He was the RCB captain, not the India skipper anymore. Kohli appeared annoyed, dismissing something or someone behind the sightscreen. That wasn’t going to change anything, crowds are not referred to the third umpire. Kohli knew he was out, Eden more than him. RCB was 2 for 1 off 3 balls. Virat Kohli was dragging his heels back to the dugout.
But before that, he had been naughty outside off again, attempting that lovely cover drive of his, but way too early - the ball moved, after someone in the crowd moved, edge taken, catch taken, not taken, taken. It all happened in slow motion, as often the worst things do - giving you just that glimmer of hope, then snatching that hope, snapping at you with despair.
This wasn’t Virat Kohli’s first duck in the IPL. Doubtful though he will ever forget it. After dismissing KKR for a mere 131, it appeared RCB just had to turn up and do their thing. Even if they had factored KKR’s bowling, there was no way they could have seen a backlash so severe, an ineptness so extreme.
After Kohli’s wicket, the others fell in the blink of an eye. Those magnificent batsmen with their batting machines, AB de Villiers, Chris Gayle, KedarJadhav, they all fell, and Virat Kohli had barely walked back to the dugout.
To return from a dodgy shoulder injury, missing just three IPL matches for this? After an insipid Test series against Australia, the injury gifted Kohli a much-needed break from a bad run.
Kohli’s return to the IPL handed him the comfort of a format he had learnt to boss with minimum fuss - he returned with two half centuries and a 28. In his first match, he top scored with 62 - the rest of the team and extras managed just 80, of that, de Villiers and Gayle made 41 between them. RCB cobbled together a meagre 142 in Bangalore and lost to Keiron Pollard’s 70. Once again showing, in this format, one innings can win you the match.
In his second match, Kohli scored 28, the second highest scorer behind de Villiers’ 29. Gayle wasn’t playing but by the look of it, neither were the other batsmen. Chasing 161, RCB lost by 27 runs, once again on their homeground.
In Kohli’s third match, Gayle was playing - and added 122 in 12.4 overs with his captain. Of these 77 were Gayle’s - Kohli held his own with a 64. Finally, RCB won under Kohli, beating the Gujarat Lions.
After Kohli’s wicket, the others fell in the blink of an eye.
And then they ran into KKR at the Eden Gardens - nothing, not KKR’s first innings, not KKR’s collapse, from 65/1 in 5.4 overs to 131 all out in 19.3 overs would have prepared them for this.
But then how do you prepare for an unexpected tsunami of fast bowling? This was Virat Kohli’s first failure in four matches. The first time he failed to get into double digits. As did all the other batsmen, and extras too. This was, and could well be for a while, the lowest score ever in all ten editions of the IPL so far - RCB had been ripped apart for 49.
Virat Kohli was sitting in the dugout, head in hands, eyes still open, still sneaking a look at the shambolic batting, how they went and came and went and came, one after the other. Just the other day, Delhi Daredevils had threatened to set a new low in the IPL, freefalling to 24 for 6. DD though, much against all hope, picked themselves up, adding 91 for the seventh wicket. RCB’s freefall was in the 40s - from 40 for 5 to 49 all out.
To brush this defeat aside as a one-off is far from the solution. By now Kohli would have figured that RCB is not too different from the Indian limited overs’ team - they both feed off his success, and are frail when faced by his failure. When Kohli falls early, or even cheaply, it often takes away the will to fight or stand up - to weather the storm, to just hang in and defend.
Against KKR, Kohli’s superstar batsmen appeared clueless, unwilling to hang in, to bat ugly. To not be overtly bothered by not making runs. Dhoni did just that along with his captain, Steve Smith in their match against RCB. They scored similar scores of 28 and 27 at almost identical strike rates of 112 and 112.5. When it was tough in the middle, they didn’t throw it away. The highest score in the match was 31. Befittingly, Dhoni’s Pune beat RCB by 27 runs.
That somewhat awkward Dhoni innings proved to be the stepping stone for greater things -after a rough initial run, with low scores of 12, 5, 11, 5, Dhoni’s 28 in a winning cause, turned things around for the team.
What followed was a scorching 61 off 34 deliveries, with a trademark last ball finish from Dhoni. Dhoni was back, doubters and owners were damned likewise. The world was once again turning on Dhoni’s axis.
When Virat Kohli was interviewed in the post-match, immediately after the match, it was as if he was still walking back from his dismissal - he was questioned about the dismissal. There was talk of the small sightscreen, the UFO behind it. However, Kohli had also moved on, talking of the other nine batsmen that had gone into freefall after him.
This could happen again, if not with RCB, then with another IPL team. An already intense tournament has been squeezed even tighter. Kohli could look to Dhoni’s last two innings, and pick a thing or two from them - to free his batsmen, he might have to chain himself again. With the ability to absorb pressure better than few other batsmen of this generation, Dhoni and Kohli stand apart.
To win again, Kohli might have to lose the opening position. Without KL Rahul by his side, the magic of IPL-9 on top is missing. Maybe Kohli needs to float, bat himself down to three or even four. With the added cushion of Kohli in the dugout, the openers might just do what Mumbai Indians’ openers are doing with Rohit Sharma waiting in the wings.